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Gabe Balderas joined elite company last season when he became the just the sixth Ceres High wrestler in the last 17 years to qualify for the CIF State Championships twice.

"My dad (Gabriel) is my biggest motivator," he said. "Without him, I'm nothing. I wouldn't be in the sport. Oscar Peral (a former Ceres High grappler) was my first coach. He taught me everything I know and use today. They (current Bulldog coaches Jon Nowicki and Steve Festa) built me into a really good wrestler. They pushed me to limits I didn't think I had."

Balderas has reason to be confident heading into his final season with the Bulldogs.

Gabe climbed to No. 1 in the Sac-Joaquin Section preseason rankings for 113-pound grapplers.

Ceres High has never had a three-time, state-meet participant.

"It would be really nice to be the first wrestler to do that," Balderas said. "But I'm more focused on placing at state. That would be amazing. It would mean the world to me. It's a ticket to college."

Balderas compiled a 44-13 record, won two of four matches at state, placed second at Masters and Divisionals, and captured the Western Athletic Conference 115-pound crown his junior year.

Gabe had a 41-14 overall mark, and finished in the top 16 at state (2-2), sixth at Divisionals, third at Divisionals and first in the WAC as a sophomore.

Balderas took sixth at Divisionals and fifth at the Valley Oak League finals as an alternate his freshman year.

"When I first started wrestling, I wasn't that good," he said. "I've put in a lot of hard work the last six years. I gained confidence. I think I'll make it back to state this year. I just need to fine tune little things. I need to be more aggressive."

Gabe and fellow returning grapplers Armando Morales, Ruben Sanchez, Nick Santibanez, Rudy Gonzales, David Cisneros, Brandon Christeson and Joey Bettencourt will try to lead Ceres High to additional team success.

Morales, Sanchez and Santibanez had their seasons cut short at Masters a year ago.

Armando (285 pounds) was eighth in the section's preseason rankings.

Ruben (220s) was honorable mention.

Gonzales, Christeson and Bettencourt qualified for Divisionals.

The Bulldogs have advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Team Section Championships two out of the last three years.

Ceres High tied for first place with Los Banos in the WAC dual-meet standings (5-1), finished second at the conference finals and sixth at Divisionals last season.

"We want to win a league championship and go to sections again," Gabe said. "We have a really solid lineup. We have a lot of new kids. They all have heart. I love seeing the whole, team do well."

A model student-athlete, Gabe has a cumulative 3.5 GPA.

He's a Hispanic Honor Society and Science Club member.

He's also involved in Leadership.

Balderas plans to continue his wrestling career at the college level, possibly with Cal Poly, Central Iowa or New York University.

Gabe attended the University of Iowa wrestling camp during the summertime and compiled a 1-2 record at a National tournament in Vegas the first week of November.

"I can never give this up," Balderas said. "It's an amazing sport. I love it."